The classic novel “Emma” by Jane Austen, first published in 1815, has characters named Harriet, Jane, Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill and Mr. Elton, as well as the title character who envisions herself an excellent matchmaker.
“Emma! A Pop Musical,” the latest Williams Street Repertory musical at the Raue Center for the Arts, also features characters with those names, and Emma still is a meddler in the love lives of others.
But only one of these two stories is set in a present-day prep school and integrates pop songs from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and even this decade. This is not your father’s “Emma” – let alone your grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s period piece. But if you want a show that can potentially appeal to everyone from teenagers all the way up to people who remember the music of the ’60s, head to the Raue by April 20.
In “Emma! A Pop Musical,” smartly directed by Robin M. Hughes and nicely choreographed by Kara Schoenhofer, Highbury Prep’s students are celebrating the spring break wedding of two of their teachers.
Emma Woodhouse (Jordan Nazos), an outgoing senior at the school, is basking in the glory of her successful match of these two lonely science instructors. Emma is now eager to use her talent to help shy sophomore Harriet Smith (Sara Haverty) find a boyfriend before the end of the school year. Jeff Knightley (Ben Mulgrew), a senior and close friend of Emma’s, cautions Emma that matchmaking attempts can backfire, but she ignores his warnings. Emma sets her sights high for Harriet, deciding that student council president candidate Philip Elton (Levi Skoog) would be an ideal boyfriend, certainly a much better choice than the nerdy “townie,” Martin (Alexander Watson), a dishwasher/busboy at the private school who clearly likes Harriet.
Add in visitor – and possible future student – Jane Fairfax (Madison Boan), the fun-loving daughter of a rich vending machine tycoon, as well as former student/current rock star Frankie Churchill (Michael Metcalf), and you have a wide range of relationship possibilities.
The actors are worth calling out individually:
Nazos is perfectly cast as Emma. With her clear, beautiful singing voice, we hear her confidence and, with her spot-on expressions, we see how that confidence falters when she questions her abilities and her feelings.
Haverty, another strong singer, shows us a character whose life will change significantly over these spring weeks. Harriet may be an introvert who allows herself to fall for multiple men, but Haverty subtly shows the growth in self-assurance.
Mulgrew’s Jeff is a down-to-earth romantic hero who deserves happiness and wears his heart on his sleeve, invisible to the one person he’s most enamored with.
Skoog’s Martin may be the unlikeliest beau for any of the Highbury women, but his sweet portrayal gives the audience an underdog we can’t help but silently root for.
Boan makes the most of her chances to define her character, both early on when she leads everyone at Highbury in a strong rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and later in a duet with Haverty on the one original song in the show, “Bad, Bad Crush,” as the two bemoan being unlucky in love.
Metcalf is believable as a teen idol (e.g., his fans swooning as he rocks out to the Pat Benatar tune, “Heartbreaker”); he also brings out the shades of his character – and that isn’t just referring to his Ray-Bans.
Whether you love, or just like, this show will likely center around your appreciation of the songs. In addition to those above, music director Evan Swanson has elicited spirited renditions of everything from “Chapel of Love” (made famous by The Dixie Cups) to “You Can’t Hurry Love” (The Supremes), “Turn the Beat Around” (Vicki Sue Robinson/Gloria Estefan), “Straight Up” (Paula Abdul), “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” (Shania Twain), and “Brave” (Sara Bareilles). And that’s barely half of the song list.
My only suggestions for improvement are: 1) make room in the printed program to give credit to the accomplished musicians in the on-stage band, and 2) provide audience members with a list of all the songs being performed in each of the two acts, and maybe the people who made them famous. At the performance I attended, it wasn’t immediately apparent when intermission was occurring (until the lights came up); a breakdown of the songs or scenes in each act would have helped.
Thumbs up also are appropriate for scenic designer William Schmiel. The “brick” high school set, complete with the year Highbury was established, was impressive.
In summary, this is a pop musical that truly pops, and I am truly “Emma-mazed.”
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals, and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “42nd Street,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016) and “Into the Woods.”